News was released last week to the Cuban cigar media announcing the next phase of the revamp and “modernization” of Jose L Piedra, a brand dating from around 1880. The latest stage of the process – which has so far involved a change to the boxes and presentation cases Piedra’s cigars arrive in – is a new cigar band for each stick. Gone is the previous, fairly plain, white-with-brown-print band; in its place is a 1970s-styled cream edition, printed on higher grade paper and with a slightly more luxurious feel to it. This may, at first glance, appear to be a fairly inconsequential announcement, but could there be more to it than meets the eye?
The cigar band itself – la anilla – is probably the part of the stick that grabs our eye first. Conflicting stories exist over its origin: some say Ramon Allones were the first brand to introduce them, purely for marketing and decoration purposes; legend gives the honour to a famous European queen (Catherine the Great or Marie Antoinette, depending on who is telling the story) who used strips of silk to stop her cigars from staining her fingertips. However they came into use, today they are sources of vital information to smokers. Cuban and New World brands alike have begun to use every more elaborate bands to signify quality and exclusivity. Some have even taken to adding a band to the foot of the cigar, purportedly to protect the wrapper from the slight tears which can often occur in transit.
The Romeo y Julieta Linea de Oro cigars have a second band at the foot. All images courtesy of Habanos SA.
It could therefore be assumed that the new bands for Jose L Piedra are simply new bands, designed to refresh one of the older names in the industry and endure its continued appeal to the modern smoker. The timing and manner of the announcement may tell us a little more about the bigger picture surrounding a revelation which, on the face of it, probably didn’t warrant its own press release.
The first factor is the announcement itself. Habanos SA recently engaged the services of Kreab Worldwide, a PR firm with more than 50 years’ experience and over 500 clients across the world. This shows the intent of Habanos to enhance its connection with consumers across the globe, likely a policy put in place by the new majority owners. Already the information which flows from Havana is becoming more complete and more slick in its presentation, as demonstrated by the Habanos World Days online festival. The new deliveries are far from perfect, but they are an improvement and likely an indication there is more to come in this regard.
The identity of the brand who are the subject of this release is the second interesting point. Jose L Piedra are unashamedly a budget brand in Havana terms. Their tobacco comes not from the fabled Vuelta Abajo, as most of the premium brands do, but from Vuelta Arriba; while all the regular production sticks are now handmade, some were machine-rolled from the brand’s relaunch in the 1990s until about 2002. All Jose L Piedra sticks use short filler tobacco, as opposed to the tripa larga more commonly favoured by Cuban rollers.
A second band is the trademark of the Limited Edition series.
While their origins and construction may not be as salubrious as their stablemates, Piedra still make delicious cigars and have developed a reputation among smokers as a great brand to go to for affordable regular sticks. It may well be that their sudden prominence in the communication schedule, so soon after a significant price rise for the top brands which caused displeasure among Habanos’ regular customers, is designed to placate those very regulars. An enhancement in the appearance and perception of a lower-priced range could be the perfect way to hang on to customers almost driven away by the rising costs of Cohibas.
There could also be an element of deflection in the timing of this announcement. The increase in RRP of “super-luxe” brands was confirmed by way of a single paragraph in a press release describing record revenues for 2021 and revealing a gala evening to be held in Havana on September 9th; snuck into the release about these new cigar bands was a quick paragraph touching on imminent changes to Habanos boxes, bearing increased health warnings to satisfy European regulations. Could it be that this good news was broken purely to bury something likely to be less well-received?
The Gran Reserva cigars bands are among the most opulent.
Whatever subtext there is to this new announcement, one thing is for sure: the new bands look great (see lead image). While they may not be as opulent as the foil on a Gran Reserva, and they may not have the prestige of the second band on a Limited Edition, they do give the brand a more modern feel and will help convince more sceptical smokers that Jose L Piedra is a brand worth investigating. Regardless of the origins, this is a good outcome, for Piedra cigars are indeed fantastic smokes: plenty of rich wood, warm spice and robust leather notes, and at a scarcely believable price. For those of us who may now have to ration our Trinidads more carefully, Jose L Piedra is a wonderful brand to fall back on.